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Happy African American Father and Mixed Race Son Playing in the Park.Instruction in trauma-sensitive schools honors the social nature of children’s developing brains. In this way, it is closely aligned with other educational best practices, particularly Carol Ann Tomlinson’s differentiated instruction, and Columbia’s workshop model. These designs emphasize collaboration, and group problem-solving. Both processes build children’s capacity for representational thought and perspective taking.  These are critical elements of empathy and inferential comprehension.

Children with early trauma histories often miss out on the “serve and return” interactions which develop the strong neural pathways needed for reciprocal communication. A neural pathway is like a path in the woods that gets worn down by frequent use. The more the path is used, the easier it becomes to get from the beginning to the end. It’s the same way with neural pathways. The more they are used, the more efficient they become.

“Serve and return” interactions occur during  rather mundane exchanges between the caregiver and child. A baby rolls a ball to a caregiver and the caregiver rolls it back. Or a child asks a question and the caregiver responds and perhaps extends the communication by asking another question. The child learns to initiate an action and get a response. With enough practice, he learns that different actions elicit different responses and adjusts his behavior accordingly.

“Serve and return” activities form the basis for intentional thought, anticipatory set, and role taking ability.  Children with secure attachments have had many “serve and return” experiences by the time they enter school. Opportunities for classroom instruction that involve collaboration and problem-solving strengthen already established neural pathways.

For children with histories of attachment failures, the stakes are higher. Lacking opportunities for “serve and return” experiences, their neural pathways for higher order thinking are still pretty much covered with brush. These children don’t just benefit from collaboration and group problem-solving. They require sustained exposure to these instructional practices to make sense of the academic environment they find themselves in. The truth is, children with secure attachment histories can tolerate poor pedagogy. Children with early trauma histories cannot. They require us to give them the best we’ve got.

For more information visit http://www.echoparenting.org

Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Learning Communities Transforming Children’s Lives, K-5  is available at Teachers College Press and http://www.amazon.com

Please visit my blog at http://www.meltdownstomastery.wordpress.com